Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (DVD)

always watching 212x300 - Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (DVD)Directed by James Moran

Starring Alexandra Breckenridge, Doug Jones, Jack McDorman, Chris Marquette

When anthro-historians of the cyber-future look back on the cultural artifacts of our civilization, caked beneath the mountains of kale from the First Apocalypse of the Genetic Modification Wars, it’s going to be pretty fucking hard for them to piece together Slenderman. How will they decipher him from any of our other made up deities, what with the active cult following, numerous clubs dedicated to make believing he is real, and the actual killings in his name? How will we explain to the squid-men of the future that we always just thought of him as a fun joke or fantasy experiment (except for those murder teens, that shit is just weird)?

Maybe I’m overthinking this; it does seem that the popularity of Slenderman has diminished in recent years. Alternatives like Five Nights at Freddy’s and your friend jumping out from behind of a corner and saying “boo” provide suitable Slenderman style scares. As I have previously stated in other Slenderman product reviews, I don’t have an issue with the Slenderman concept and certain adaptations. Overall, the character is tired. There have been too many amateur adaptations, past the point where a truly great depiction is a long overdue conclusion. He, like Sonic, has become a parody in his own genre, consumed only by long term fans and sex freaks.

As an out-of-the-coffin horrormosexual, I am often asked by those around me “what is a slenderman” and “why is he asking 12-year-olds to stab each other?“ Well, what started off as a SomethingAwful thread became a Creepypasta story, and then was popularized by a YouTube series called Marble Hornets. Of the shining examples of Slenderman content, Marble Hornets stands out… kind of. With 92 main entries, 3 side entries, and a number of “other” entries on loosely affiliated channels, the whole thing can best be described as an alternate reality experience. It started strong, then got prohibitively weird with the introduction of the “Totheark” offshoot, got good for a while again, then got weird again, and then maybe got good again? I stopped watching around episode 80 because it got too confusing. This is similar to everyone who asked me the initial question, whose eyes went fuzzy and jaws slack somewhere between “Creepypasta” and “YouTube series.”

If you haven’t checked out the series, please do. For all the ups and downs, it is a passionate fan project with an interesting premise and some pretty cool execution. Stick with it through the bad bits, and at least make it through the hotel story arc. It’s hard to describe anything Slenderman related as an “underdog” project at this point, but it really is one of the first and finest examples of the amateur fan horror story form.

As cool as the series is, the backstory isn’t necessary to understand the movie. Aside from a brief snippet at the end that allows fans to connect the series to the film, the two are largely unrelated. If you are expecting to get answers from either as to the mysterious marks or motivations of “The Operator” (what the series actually named Slenderman, and even then only mentioned in one of the numerous fan offshoot additional canons), then you will be disappointed. While it stays true to the series, it also is an unsatisfying retread for fans. I was specifically asked to review this as a fan of I, and as a fan, I was let down.

The film, much like the series, has an interesting premise with confusing execution. While something greater seems to be going on, like hell are they ever going to explain it. While suitable for a procedural fan-driven internet series, this format doesn’t translate well to a feature film. As the series has yet to offer any concrete answers, the film would either have to add to the canon or create its own to provide any kind of satisfying conclusion.

Instead, they just offer no explanation at all. The film starts with an interesting enough premise: a news crew is working on a story about homes abandoned due to the recession. Following a man whose job it is to clear out the empty homes, they come across a home that looks oddly lived in. The furniture is all still in place, lights are on, and even homework and lunch laid out on the table. It’s like they just got straight up raptured, and the characters react with a realistic level of disbelief. In the basement, they find a collection of video tapes. With the reasonable premise of using the tapes to try to figure out what happened to the family, the mystery begins.

They quickly figure out that the family believed something was stalking them, and after a bit of digging cameraman Milo (Chris Marquette) finds a mysterious tall faceless man in a suit in the background of some shots. These initial segments are incredibly satisfying for fans of the series, who are used to looking through every frame for hidden shots of The Operator. When the audio cuts and visuals glitch, your eyes instinctively scan the background for a shadowy suit and tie.

While the tapes don’t explain everything, realistically only giving you glimpses into the family’s plight, the explanation they do give is a bit ham handed. If the cop explaining to you that the family was complaining about a “man you can only see through a camera living in the woods” is going over your head, then don’t worry, there’s a whole segment dedicated to the husband and wife passing the camera back and forth and exclaiming, “Oh my God, I can see him! Here, take the camera. Can you see him? I can’t see him now.” Show, Always Watching, don’t tell.

Over time, the malignant cinematographic force begins to hunt the news crew as well. The pacing is a bit odd during this portion, with The Operator harassing Milo at an unsustainably fast pace. After Milo first spots him, it’s only about 20 minutes before he is in his house touching him while he sleeps. Soon, the whole team is marked for death, but the pace reels back as they try to escape and find answers. It goes way too quickly into peril, then unsatisfyingly pulls back so that it can artificially re-ramp back up to a conclusion.

As inconsistent as the progression is, the plot twists are interesting. Why not just turn off the cameras? Probably the saddest part of the movie when they try that. What do the marks mean, and what is the purpose of their location? They play a pivotal role in the movie’s climax. What does The Operator actually do? The extent of his power will surprise you. Note that I said the twists are interesting, since the goals of The Operator and overall conclusion are head scratchingly dull.

What was probably most egregious about the film was the numerous plot holes. There are so many half-assed or unexplained bits, that the film would have stayed neutral during WW2, because this cheese is Swiss. What originally presents itself as a vanishing of an entire family eventually is revealed as them all just up and leaving. I get that they were fearing for their lives, but you wouldn’t just tell your daughter to leave her backpack and cookies behind while you fled to a cabin. The goal is to not freak your child out, you don’t just throw her into the car screaming that, “there’s no time to explain, we need to run away to a cabin immediately!” That kid would be shiting its pants the whole way there.

They also present it like no one knew where the family was. The mother and employer had left a ton of messages asking where they were, and even the bank that held the mortgage on their house just thought they vanished. This is all super creepy when you think they all vanished, but nonsensical when you find out that the mother is actually alive. It isn’t like she’s even stuck in some asylum and no one knows who she is. They ask for her by name, and are led to her. Oh shit, why didn’t, I don’t know, the fucking bank or her closest friends and family think of just asking around about her? The news crew tracked them down by following a charge on their credit card delivered to a cabin they owned, but the notoriously lenient owners of their debt just didn’t think of this? And beyond that, they didn’t get to the cabin and think, “hey, this malignant force is stalking us, maybe I should call my family and let them know I’m in danger just in case it possesses me and forces me to kill my family before lighting the cabin on fire.” I call bullshit.

Shot wise, it’s actually really well done, and gains a lot of points for that. They do this interesting thing where they project the camera footage on the wall, which gives some pretty interesting shots of The Operator from unique angles. When the projection is reflected on Milo’s chest and we can see that The Operator is right in front of him at an angle that Milo can’t see, that’s genuinely interesting. The framework of only being able to see The Operator through a camera is excellent foundation for a found footage film, explaining away a lot of the “why is the camera always on” questions. They never pause for reaction shots, nor shoot their feet as they shimmy or crouch. There are a few shots early on that don’t entirely make sense, and of course the eternal question of “who edited this all” exists, but it comes together convincingly.

What really strikes me about the whole production is that I might have liked it better if I didn’t have the backstory. I came into this expecting answers, with knowledge of the mythos and expectations. While I appreciated the little bits for fans, if I had come into this blind I would have been better able to swallow the lack of resolution. If there was a mini-series about the Blair Witch, then The Blair Witch Project would have been woefully vague for fans of the franchise.

Aside from my personal distaste, I take the objective view with this film. For fans, it will be a fun little bonus story that lets you down in the substance department. For people looking for a fun horror movie, it won’t be super memorable, but will give you a good time. If you don’t think about it too much and just experience it, it is quite fun. As a film/horror nerd, I was let down, but general audiences will like this a whole lot. It did enough interesting to earn my respect, but too much wrong for my adoration. A solid good time, but not a masterpiece.

As a side note, the DVD has no special features, so not much reason to purchase the physical copy if you have already watched the VOD.

  • Film
  • Special Features
User Rating 3.21 (14 votes)

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Written by Ted Hentschke

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